August 05, 2002

Instapundit (second update) refers once more to Paul Krugman's 'rhinoceri'. That's as bad as 'octopi'. If you want to be pedantic and use the Greek plural, they're 'rhinocerotes' (five syllables) and 'octopodes' (four syllables). If you want to be really pedantic, you can even use the Greek pronunciations and call them 'REE-no-keh-ROW-tace' and 'ock-TOP-o-dace'. But who would want to do that? Certainly not I.

Better to stick with the standard English plurals 'rhinoceroses' and 'octopuses'. If these sound too ugly, we can pretend that the plural is the same as the singular and say 'a herd of rhinoceros' or 'a plateful of octopus'. That works with squid and haddock and moose and trout, why not rhinoceros(es) and octopus(es)? Dictionaries may object, but my ears do not.

Krugman's meaning is also obscure, as he must explain that it refers to Ionesco's play, which most of us haven't read. What is particularly confusing in a political context is that many Americans (especially on Free Republic) already use RINO to refer to a 'Republican In Name Only' like John McCain, or Jim Jeffords before he came out of the closet as a Democrat. Of course the same thing on the other side is a DINO. When Krugman calls Mickey Kaus a rhinoceros, he means what others would call a DINO, not a RINO.

Just to further confuse things, ancient Romans used rhinoceros as "a nickname for a man with a long nose" and metaphorically for a Frasier Crane or Gil Chesterton type of critic: in the epigrammatist Martial, nasum rhinocerotis habere, "to have the nose of a rhinoceros" means "to turn up the nose, to sneer at every thing". Does that make Krugman a rhinoceros when he writes about Republicans?

Update: (8:40 PM)

In the first comment, 'barbara' quote Webster's as approving 'octopi'. I think Webster's ought to be ashamed. I object to 'octopi' because it's neither Latin nor English, it's pseudo-Latin. It seems to me perfectly proper either to use the original foreign plural of a foreign word, or to use the English plural with 's' or 'es'. But if you're going to use the original foreign plural, you need to get it right. Thus, the plural of 'cherub' and 'seraph' could be either 'cherubim' and 'seraphim' (Hebrew) or 'cherubs' and 'seraphs' (English), whichever sounds better. But making them 'cheruboi' (Greek) and 'seraphen' (German) would be wrong.

In Latin, words of the same ending do not always have the same plural. The plurals of alumnus and genius (2nd declension) are alumni and genii, but the plural of genus (3rd declension neuter) is genera, the plural of Venus (3rd declension feminine) is Veneres (= 'statues of Venus'), and the plurals of census, hiatus, and apparatus (4th declension) are census, hiatus, and apparatus (with a long U in the last syllable instead of a short). I was going to correct James Lileks' inexcusable 'hiatii', approved by VodkaPundit, but Sightseeing in Plato's Cave beat me to it.

In some cases, either the Latin or the English plural sounds good: 'indexes' or 'indices', 'appendixes' or 'appendices', take your pick. (We can observe a general trend towards the English forms with X as fewer people take Latin.) In other cases the Latin plural sounds much better: no one would say 'genuses' for 'genera', 'axises' for 'axes', or 'basises' for 'bases', even though the last two are easily confused with the plurals of 'axe' and 'base'. That is no doubt why some foreign plurals survive. But adding any old Latin ending to any Latin word seems wrong, no matter what Webster's says. And I don't think it's just my personal whim that says 'octopi' is wrong: it's not Latin, it's not Greek, it's not English, what excuse does it have?

Similarly, English-speakers are under no obligation to sprinkle their speech with French phrases like 'je ne sais quoi' and 'soupçon'. But those who do will want to spell and pronounce the words correctly. (If I haven't, please let me know: I'm only quoting these words as part of my argument, and may well have gotten them wrong.)

Posted by Dr. Weevil at August 05, 2002 02:02 PM

See Webster's-- ocˇtoˇpus Pronunciation Key (kt-ps)
n. pl. ocˇtoˇpusˇes or ocˇtoˇpi (-p)

Octopi seems to be a recognized plural that you are objecting to on the grounds that it annoys you? Not that I'm unsympathetic on general grounds, but I disagree on this one. I have no idea how "octopi" happened to become a/the recognized plural, but I personally prefer it. "octpuses" just sounds clumsy and akward to my ears. I am actually quite fond of octopi/octopuses. I spent my summers in college working at an aquarium, Octopi (as we always referred to them in plural) are fascinating animals. They are very ingenious; we spent a fair amount of time "octopus proofing" their tanks. They'd figure out how to break out and we'd find them in the next tank, snacking on its occupants. Frankly I always suspected that they were smarter than some of my co-workers!

Posted by: barbara on August 5, 2002 04:41 PM

Asparagus was 4th declension, right?

Posted by: Laurence Simon on August 5, 2002 09:13 PM

No, asparagus is 2nd declension, so the Latin plural is asparagi -- not to be confused with 'Asparaguy', which is another name for Scott Ganz.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on August 5, 2002 09:18 PM

Ahhhhh, thank you. I've always hated "Octopi" and "Rhinoceri." Now I have a Latin scholar I can point to for support.


One octopus, ten octopus.
One rhinocerus, ten rhinocerus.

That's what I like to use!

Posted by: Dean Esmay on August 6, 2002 01:49 AM

I quite agree about the plurals, but do you really say "Certainly not I!"? Can you say "It is I!" as well? There's no such nominativity left in my dialect.

And "je ne sais quoi" is an English idiom - I would no more dream of using Proper French Pronunciation for that than I would attempt German for "schadenfreude" (which is English for "Schadenfreude", which is German) or Italian for "latte" (which in English means a kind of coffee - in Italian it just means milk and the "caffe" is not optional).

Posted by: des on August 6, 2002 10:17 AM

I hate to say it, but you pronounced 'je ne sais quoi' incorrectly.

Posted by: Enrak on August 6, 2002 01:22 PM

This reminds me of a train journey I took with my father many years back (i.e. about a quarter century ago - so the details are hazy). He was musing about the plural of 'hippopotamus'. He pointed out that hippopotamus means 'horse of the river', the plural therefore being 'horses of the river'. He rendered this as 'hippœpotamu', if memory serves.

It also calls to mind a quip attibuted to the late Enoch Powell, a classicist of some note. He was quoted as saying 'one bathroom, two bathra'!

Posted by: David Gillies on August 6, 2002 01:34 PM

And who knew that the plural of clitoris is clitorides?

Posted by: Cunning Linguist on August 8, 2002 02:11 AM

octopus is derived from greek not latin, so its plural is octopodes (same root as antipodes). i prefer octopuses. octopi is plain ridiculous - in the same way that the plural of lexus the luxury car is (not) lexi.
i never use latin / greek plurals - who says majores instead of majors?

Posted by: mint on December 9, 2003 07:22 AM

American Herirtage says:

n. pl. rhinoceros or rhiˇnocˇerˇosˇes

So I guess you can use rhinoceros as plural.

Posted by: Spikey on January 12, 2004 10:26 AM